The Glorification of Overwork in Academia and its Impacts on our Collective Wellbeing by Jenna Mittelmeier

Wellbeing is something that I have had a complicated relationship with throughout my life, although perhaps without always having the vocabulary to label it. This became most salient during the second year of my PhD, when it felt like a blackout curtain suddenly dropped and the world became, quietly and without fanfare, simply a different place. It took me the better part of a decade to recognize this, though. 

Understanding that you are not really doing okay is a learning curve and the process of unravelling this is frustratingly slow. For me, a significant consideration has been reflecting on the ways that my work as an academic has been inextricably entangled with being unwell. One specific issue I have reassessed is the ways that being well (or rather, attempting to be) is consistently hindered by academia’s ever-present pressures of overwork, forcing me to consider the ways I might be both influenced by and complicit in this. 

Academia has a culture that valorizes feeling perpetually overburdened and fatigued. This, of course, manifests in structural ways through precariousness, unmanageable workloads, inequalities, and bullying. But what I wish to focus on is the more subtle forms of overwork glorification that are built into the fabric of our working practices and interactions, often self-perpetuated through everyday exchanges.

The Normalisation and Reinforcement of Overwork

Overwork glorification often manifests itself through micro interactions which, although perhaps not intending to be harmful, insinuate and assume a normative sense of exhaustion. It is often demonstrated through humour – the jokes about “it must be nice to take a holiday” or “days off? what are those?”. It is present in the offhand quips about PhD researchers sleeping at their desks or not having time to eat. It is shown through the jovial banter about how academia’s flexibility means “you can choose which 16 hours of the day you want to work!”.

Glorification of overwork is also shown through the subtle expectations of how colleagues can or should work. It is present through praising work conducted during leave rather than critiquing it: the “helpful colleague” who is thanked for joining a meeting during their time off or the “thanks for responding during your holiday” email responses. It is seen through the subtle judgement of those who choose not to answer emails on the weekends, and the guilty “I’ll just take a peek” dip-ins after hours. It is there in calendar invitations which just assume you can work at all hours. It shows itself in tweets from prominent academics who claim to regularly work 100 hours a week. 

Glorification of overwork is similarly highlighted through discussions of leisure, or lack thereof. It manifests through offhand remarks about “who has time to go to the cinema?” or the pseudo-bragging of not having had a holiday all year. It is present through posted pictures about finally having time to read the latest academic publication at the beach or posts about poolside marking on the weekend. It was insinuated to me early in my post-PhD career when a respected colleague told me they felt too guilty to read fiction when there were “more important things to read”. It is also highlighted by the disclaimers of “I know this isn’t academic but…” before divulging a hobby not seen as intellectual enough. 

These small moments and comments create a space which leads individuals to feel inferior or “unacademic” for taking time off, turning their minds off, and having hobbies not related to work. For me, it has often led to feeling guilty about taking time to rest or not being at my 100% most productive. It has, at times, meant feeling that I need to hide from my colleagues hobbies that otherwise bring such joy (it is not “academic”, after all, to read comics or spend 400+ hours on Animal Crossing). This glorification of overwork, therefore, erases our ability to delineate between work and pleasure, establishing strict borders around what is accepted as worthy of our time as academics and filling us with guilt for that which we enjoy, but is not seen to fit. 

In buying into this glorification, we often fail to present ourselves to colleagues and students as authentic people with hobbies and enjoyment beyond our work. In my experience, this manifested in an unhealthy relationship with work that fueled years of poor mental health. I have at times found myself consistently feeling guilty when I am not working, constantly checking emails outside of work, working long hours, and feeling unable to meaningfully relax. It is a narrative that I have recently focused on reclaiming (although, I admit this has only felt possible after securing permanent employment). 

Buying into the glorification of overwork is destructive to our own wellbeing, but it also perpetuates unwellness for newer academics, those in precarious roles, or those with historically marginalised identities. Such micro interactions and offhand comments collectively create an environment in which overwork is expected and exhaustion is seen as part of the job. This became apparent to me when, in my attempt to take back my own time, one of my PhD supervisees commented that they enjoyed never receiving emails from me on evenings and weekends because it gave them permission to stop checking their inbox after hours too – a hidden curriculum I did not realise I was even creating. This means, for those of us in more senior positions, that our actions, words, and jokes become the lens through which the next generations of academics navigate their own wellbeing and relationships with work. 

(Attempting to) Model Change

Individually, we cannot always fix the structural inequalities that make academia an oppressive place to work (although we should be pushing for change wherever we can). But we can choose to stop perpetuating the glorification of overwork in small ways in our daily roles. 

I have seen such small acts of resistance in my current department, when each year our heads of department have stated plainly that emails should not be sent over the Christmas closures. I have witnessed it in my annual development review, when my mentor has politely ordered me, much to my shock, to do less work, not more. I have felt it through excellent colleagues who, when taking on a new big project, ask me directly what I am giving up to make time for it. Small acts of resistance are present when choosing to discuss something that is not work during department socials, through the “please do not email me during your leave” responses, and our refusal to laugh along to jokes about not having time for hobbies. It is why I hope to, moving forward in my career, be more open, more human, about how I have been patiently waiting to finish the working day so that I can play more Disney Dreamlight Valley. 

What I hope each of us can do is to reflect on how our micro interactions might play into a culture that glorifies overwork. How might we, instead, create through these interactions an environment in which our colleagues feel empowered to take back control of their time? How do we portray ourselves as more human and less as working machines? For those of us in more senior positions, how do we lead by example and encourage healthy work-life relationships for the colleagues and students we mentor? But most importantly: How do we, collectively, decide to stop buying into the glorification of overwork to make more space for being well in academia? 

Dr Jenna Mittelmeier is a Senior Lecturer in International Education at the University of Manchester (UK). Her research focuses on the internationalisation of higher education and practices with international students. She is active on Twitter at @JLMittelmeier.